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Executive Profile
I was given two years to live, basically. In terms of healing, I was told that I had what amounted to a zero percent chance of getting better.' 
Powerball players have better odds, yet Crain hit the jackpot.  A full-body bone scan in July showed no evidence of cancer, a pronouncement confirmed by additional tests in late September.


Phyllis Crain, who helps troubled
kids overcome long odds, knew
exactly what do do when cancer
gave her two years to live

By Kevin Brafford

You might say Dr. Phyllis Crain had a mid-life crisis two years ago and that the experience forever changed her in many positive ways. But you should know upfront that her mid-life crisis didn’t lead to a red convertible or a new hair color. It led to a much sweeter appreciation of life itself, her multitude of friends and her rewarding work as executive director of the Crossnore School for troubled children in Avery County.

You see, her mid-life crisis came when, on Oct. 5, 2001, she was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer, meaning it had spread through her 44-year-old body and metastasized to her spine, left clavicle, right 10th rib and right hip.

“I was given two years to live, basically,” she says. “In terms of healing, I was told that I had what amounted to a zero percent chance of getting better.”

Powerball players have better odds, yet Crain hit the jackpot. A full-body bone scan in July showed no evidence of cancer, a pronouncement confirmed by additional tests in late September. Unlike lottery winners, however, Crain doesn’t have the choice of taking a lump-sum payout. “My doctor told me, ‘Phyllis, I can’t see every cell in your body, so I cannot tell you that you are cancer-free, whatever that means. But I can tell you that you are in remission.’ ”

Crain ran with the news, thrilled beyond words but at the same time not completely surprised. “My husband and I had been on a trip to the California wine country and to Yosemite National Park,” she says, “and I told him that I just didn’t feel like someone who had cancer.

“The treatment plan that I’ve been doing for the past couple of years I’ll keep doing, either as long as I live or as long as it’s working. It’s been more than chemotherapy, more than radiation treatments, though. It’s the prayers of so many people, of these sweet children at this wonderful school. I truly believe it’s gone, that I’m healed.”

Feeling blessed is nothing new for Crain. Raised in the tiny Green Creek community of Tryon, she is the middle of Kenneth and Hazel Horne’s three children. A brother, Keith, is three years older; a sister, Sherry, is six years younger.

Both parents commuted a half-hour in opposite directions to their jobs. Kenneth worked in a steel mill in Spartanburg, S.C., and Hazel in a Buster Brown shoe factory in Forest City. “Sundays were extra special,” Crain says. “We’d have a covered-dish dinner after church under a big oak tree at my grandparents’ house.”

Lordy, there were a lot of Hornes. Within a few miles lived several sets of relatives, and they’d all gather to spend the afternoon. “There were nine children in my dad’s family, so we always had a lot of cousins to play with. We’d play baseball in the pasture until dark — we had enough cousins to fill two full ball teams.”

Crain’s many talents were evident early. At age 2 she sang her first church solo, “How Great Thou Art.” For 20 years she served as the church’s pianist, and when she wasn’t tickling the ivories, she was tickling the nets on a nearby basketball court — she was a standout at Polk Central High. “I never lacked for something to do,” she says. “Between church and sports and family, I was always busy.”

Having an older brother helped her athletically. “I was always competing on his level,” she says. “My dad never showed me any mercy as a girl. If we were playing baseball, he’d hit me just as hard of grounders as he would my brother. If I wanted to get on a tractor and drive it, he’d never tell me I couldn’t just because I was a girl.”

Naturally, Crain excelled at softball, starring on a summer-league team that won a state championship. When she was 15, she played on a women’s team sponsored by a local Chevrolet dealership that also fielded a men’s team.

That’s where she met 21-year-old Keith Crain, a soon-to-be senior at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and admittedly not a real good judge of age. “The women’s coach played on the men’s team, and he’d schedule our practice near the time of their practice,” he remembers. “I was actually engaged at the time, and I know Phyllis had at least one or two boyfriends chasing after her. We talked pretty much the whole summer, and it was that Labor Day when we finally got together.

“She’d ridden with her mom and dad — they always came to her games. I asked her if I could take her home, and she said sure, but that I’d have to talk to her parents first. I just thought that they were an old-fashioned family, which was kind of sweet. So I asked them and they said OK. And we’ve been together ever since.”

He still had no idea of their age difference, and by the time he did, in his eyes she was his equal in every way. “She said something about wanting me to help her with her math,” he says. “I said ‘OK, what kind of math?’ She said it was geometry, and I said, ‘That’s what you take when you’re a sophomore in high school.’ She said, yep, that was right.”

“We met in the middle of the summer,” she recalls, “so when we talked it would never be about anything related to age. It just wasn’t something that would come up, because at the time we were just friends.”

Soon to be best friends, as it were. Two years later — 29 years ago this Dec.15 to be exact — they were married. Phyllis says marrying so young isn’t for everyone, but it was for her. “If I made a mistake, it’s that I met my soulmate when I was very young,” she says. “And I couldn’t help that. But I would say that it’s worked out pretty well.”

Crain began college when her daughter, Holly, was seven weeks old. Two years later, she graduated as salutatorian of her class at North Greenville (S.C.) Junior College. She spent the next two years at Wofford College, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1979 with a degree in psychology. A year later, she had earned her master’s in education from Converse College.

“I was so driven,” she says. “I wanted to be a good mother and a good wife, yet I also wanted to get my education and figure out what else life had in store for me.”

She taught language arts for the next eight years in the Spartanburg area, commuting daily from their home near her parents in Tryon. Her first teaching job, at O.P. Earle Elementary in Landrum, S.C., got her hooked on education for good.

“I had a marvelous principal in Walker Williams, the finest educator that I’ve ever known,” she says. “He modeled for me early in my career that real educators do whatever it takes to help a child succeed. If the family needs food, we take them food. If the child needs shoes and a warm coat, then we get that for them.

“He encouraged creativity and expanding learning opportunities beyond the classroom walls. When Eastern Airlines was in operation (with service from the Greenville/Spartanburg airport), it was not uncommon for me to talk them into letting me take a group of 40 students and parents to New York City for the day, or to Chicago when we were studying architecture, or a trip into northwestern Pennsylvania to have the children walk through, around and under Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water creation, or to Boston when we were studying Revolutionary War history. I could take an idea to Mr. Williams — a desire to provide a special learning experience for children — and he would always say ‘make it happen.’ ”

Walker, now principal at Tryon Elementary School, says Crain was a cut above. “It was evident when I interviewed Phyllis just how intelligent she was,” he says. “She was so bright, and she had tireless energy. You worry sometimes about getting your teachers charged up to do their job. With her, it was the other way. You had to worry about holding her back because she wanted to accomplish so much. She was always full-speed ahead.”

In 1990, Crain completed her doctorate in education from the University of South Carolina and began a five-year stint as director of instruction for Spartanburg District One Schools. By then, Holly was 15 and a second child, Keith II, was 5 and the apple of his parents’ eyes. “Life was wonderful,” she says. “The only thing that could have made it better was getting a position back closer to home, where we still lived.”

Her husband worked in the central office at Rutherford County Schools, and one day he was casually looking at a bulletin board when job postings for superintendent’s vacancies in two western North Carolina counties got his attention. A couple of interviews later, Phyllis was offered both positions, and chose to accept one in Avery County as its first female superintendent.

Over the next five years, among other things, she instituted pre-kindergarten programs in all of the elementary schools, implemented state-of-the-art technology throughout the system, and oversaw the construction of two new schools. During her tenure, the number of children reading below grade level was reduced by 40 percent, thanks to an intensive reading tutorial she put in place. “It was a great period of growth for me,” she says. “I got to work with so many wonderful people, and it’s when I really came to know and fall in love with Crossnore.”

On New Year’s Day in 1999, Crain accepted a position as associate executive director of Crossnore School Inc. Three months later, she was named executive director, the first woman to lead the school since its founder, Dr. Mary Martin Sloop, more than 90 years ago.

Crossnore School is a children’s home whose mission is to provide a safe, stable, healing, living and learning environment for children from families in crisis. Last year, it served more than 400 abused, abandoned and neglected children from 27 counties, some as young as 18 months and one as old as 19. In addition to the children’s home component, Crossnore School operates a daycare program for ages up to 5, an afterschool latchkey program, and a summer day camp for area mountain children. And in the heart of its campus sits a charter school for kindergarten through 12th grade.

“This place is really where my soul is,” she says. “It’s all about giving children another chance in life. It’s about hope, and it’s about finding opportunities for kids who have never had them and absolutely deserve them.”

Their chances improve every day. A new classroom building and library were built in the spring of 2001, and each of the cottages has undergone extensive renovations. A recently completed $5 million capital campaign brings a promise of further improvements and ammenities. “A lot of people have made a commitment to the Crossnore School and for that I’m grateful,” Crain says. “For a lot of our children, this is their last chance. They’ve been through so much anguish and had so much pain, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it.”

Two years ago this past September, Crain endured a different form of life-altering pain. She had spoken at a conference in Orlando, Fla., and on the drive back to Tryon, she began experiencing occasional sharp pains in her right hip and lower back.

A few days later at work — and still hurting — she went to remove a mug of hot water from the microwave. While she was stooped over, she sneezed, and pain shot through her body. “I went down immediately and I was screaming at the top of my lungs,” she says.

Due to her ongoing pain, Crain tightened her muscles as she sneezed, which caused a fracture of the L-5 vertabrae. She was hospitalized for several days, but her pain rarely subsided — even a morphine drip brought only a modicum of relief. “The pain was like being in labor, but at least in childbirth you get breaks between contractions,” Crain says. “I didn’t have any breaks.”

Additional tests were conducted, and findings from a MRI led to Crain undergoing a bone biopsy, which revealed cancer. “We were surprised, because I had already had two mammograms that year,” she says. “They can pick up 90 percent of what’s going on in the breast; I fell into the other 10 percent.”

Holly Crain Hanes was in the midst of mid-terms in her first semester of medical school at the Brody School of Medicine in Greenville when all of this was going on. “They waited until I finished exams to tell me about the cancer because they wanted to protect me,” she says. “I thought something was wrong, because Dad would always answer the phone whenever I called, and that was strange because he doesn’t like talking on the phone.”

“The first couple of weeks was like free-falling,” Keith says. “Every doctor we turned to, the diagnosis would get worse and worse.”

Friends came to Crain’s aid. Several worked to get her an appointment at the renowned M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and another provided his Leer jet for her to be transported. “I couldn’t have flown commercially,” she says. “I was in a big back brace, and they just lifted me up into the plane.”

They saw several doctors in Houston, and none uttered the words that Crain wanted to hear. “One wrote the word ‘cure’ on a piece of paper, showed it to me and said, ‘This is what you’re wanting, and I’m her to tell you that it’s not going to happen.’

“Even though I knew better, that was devastating. Here I am, at the best cancer center in the nation and that’s what you’re telling me? My gosh, we put a man on the moon in 1969, but this is the best you can do?”

Three options exist to treat cancer patients — surgery, chemotherapy and radiation — and Crain did them all. Over the next three months, she underwent 61 radiation treatments, swallowed hundreds of pills and endured a lifetime’s worth of needle sticks.

“There were six or seven treatments of different kinds that overlapped,” Keith says. “Those really zapped her. Every Friday, we’d pack some grapes, crackers, cheeses and a bottle of wine and head up to our favorite spot on the (Blue Ridge) Parkway and celebrate another week of radiation treatments.”

Faith, family, friends, skilled doctors and a strong will to live continue to carry Crain. “If I’d felt like my work was over, if I’d done all that I thought I was supposed to do, then I could probably have more easily accepted having cancer,” she says. “But there was no peace — I just felt like God had more in store for me.”

Crain gradually has worked back into a full schedule at Crossnore School, but she tempers it with a vacation calendar that would be the envy of many. “I love to work,” she says, “and I take great joy in it. These children mean everything to me. But I’ve also been made keenly aware of how short and precious life is, and that you need to live every day to the fullest.”

So at least once each quarter, the Crains take a trip. This past summer, they took their children and her parents on a cruise to Alaska. They visited parts of California and Nevada in the fall, and have earmarked Nova Scotia for a journey next June.

Traveling out of state isn’t a prerequisite for a special celebration. One weekend this month, more than 15 members of the Crain’s extended family will gather in Charlotte for two nights, including a big celebratory dinner where they’ll toast their good fortune. “Life is about sharing time with families,” Keith says, “and this is something we started at the end of her radiation treatments. We’ve lived a lifetime the past three years, so we celebrate it every day.”

The walls of Crain’s office are adorned with diplomas, plaques, photographs and momentos that pay homage to 46 years of wonderful memories. One stands out: a lift ticket, good for the 2047 season at Appalachian Ski Mountain.

“My doctor told me that I should set goals for the rest of my life,” she says. “He knows how much I enjoyed skiing, so we decided that our goal for me would be to die when I’m 90 years old and still snow skiing. So that’s what I’m shooting for.”

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Last Modified: December 16, 2003
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